Almost exactly two hundred and one years ago a boy called Charles Dickens was born to a navy clerk and his wife in the dockyard town of Portsmouth. This boy, who wouldn't stay in Portsmouth for long, went on to be famed for writing about the horrific poverty faced by 19th century Britons.
If he were writing today, what would Dickens be talking about?
If he visited his birthplace Dickens would still find appalling levels of deprivation. Indeed 'Charles Dickens Ward' in Portsmouth is one of sixty nine places in the UK where a child is more likely than not to be in poverty. Statistics out last week paint a depressing picture of the lack of progress made on child poverty in the UK. In my own constituency, the South East of England, seven local authority areas have at least one in four children living in poverty. Across the rest of the UK the situation is just as bleak.
Though Dickens would surely be glad to find that children are no longer sent to workhouses he would still find hungry kids and their parents in want of more food at dinnertime. Save the Children suggest that 61% of parents in poverty have had to cut back on food and a quarter have skipped meals because they can't afford to eat. On top of this a large number of children in poverty say they are missing out on things that many other children take for granted, like going on school trips and having a warm coat in winter.
Dickens' father, John, ended up in a debtor's jail after not being able to pay a baker's bill. And, though prison sentences for those in the red are now consigned to history, the number of kids growing up in households with serious debts is on the increase. It was revealed this week that the national debt line has seen a 94% year on year increase in the number of people calling in need of advice on payday loans. A quarter of parents have been forced into debt to pay for childcare.
Even though the latest available national figures showed a fall in relative poverty up until early 2011, because unlike median incomes, benefits were not falling in real terms, this improvement is now reversing. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a huge growth in child poverty of 400,000 between 2011 and 2015, and a total of 800,000 by 2020.
It doesn't have to be like this. In a report last year UNICEF looked at child poverty rates in economically advanced countries. They found that the UK ranked 22nd out of 35 countries on relative poverty. Some of our closest European counterparts have made serious inroads into child poverty with Countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany all having significantly lower child poverty rates than Britain's.
It is shocking that successive governments, who purport to have child poverty at the top of their agenda, have allowed us to be in a situation where one fifth of children still live in poverty. In many ways the world in which we live in would be unrecognisable to Charles Dickens. But one thing that time hasn't healed is the ever presence of poverty in our towns and cities. Our European neighbours' show us that our kids don't have to be poor, now's the time to make the changes needed to break away from the Dickensian levels of poverty still affecting so many.